The Rural Pastors Initiative: Addressing Isolation and Burnout in Rural Ministry
We present findings from an 18-month evaluative study in which we gathered survey and telephone interview data on 51 rural pastors who participated in an intervention designed to help them overcome some of the biggest hurdles in their professional lives (including loneliness, isolation, burnout, an imbalance between personal and professional life, and an absence of self-care activities) and to buttress the primary means by which they try to ameliorate these problems: cultivation of spiritual closeness to God. We contextualize our findings in rural environments, a reality that puts pastors in the position of ministering to their congregations but also performing an array of social services for which they never received training. Our findings suggest that rural pastors suffer an appreciable degree of loneliness and isolation. While some conditions improved over the course of the program, the participants continued to struggle with the structural and organizational barriers endemic to daily life as a rural minister. This intervention appears to have helped participants enhance their professional aptitudes, reduce their reported degree of loneliness, and connect horizontally with other congregational leaders. However, the program did not catalyze greater self-care among pastors, which may be a result of their perceiving self-care as a luxury. Finally, the data suggest that pastors attempt to make their lives better by reaching inside themselves rather than trying to connect with others. Loneliness—which may be ingrained in the job itself—remains the most robust explanatory variable, exhibiting a strong relationship with other variables such as burnout and professional excellence.